To give us all a rest from lockdown on a Sunday morning, here’s a lovely non-lockdown piece from Peter Divey. It made me think of what a wonderful place Britain used to be (and I say that as someone who doesn’t even like perfume). And that got me all depressed about the future we’re heading into. So in a way it’s not a non-lockdown piece at all.
My grandfather piqued my lifelong interest in perfume. I loved visiting him as a young boy. He was always smartly dressed, but more than that, he always smelled magnificent. As soon as you were in the front door a fragrant bloom greeted you. He smoked, everyone did then, but only in the smaller lounge strictly set aside for such. He wore a flamboyant paisley patterned smoking robe which was regularly doused in rose or lavender water that he made up himself. He would treat himself to a quality cigar a couple of times a month. I was not meant to go in, but of course I would sneak a look. The mix of tobacco and perfume was always wonderful to me. Grandmother hated smoking and never entered that room. A true sanctuary.
The rest of the house smelled just as exotic. Grandmother wore rich, potent floral perfume. It was heady stuff, trailing behind her as she wafted about. She was always busy cooking and baking. The kitchen always enticed with spices, nutmeg, cinnamon. Sometimes, on special occasions, there would be a rose-off, as grandfather bought out the big guns. Hammam Bouquet (HB), a luxurious rich oriental with rose at the core of the action, devised in the 19th century by a gifted English barber called Penhaligon. I couldn’t believe it was a man’s perfume, but grandfather explained about the funky musk that lay underneath, darkening the scent. This was the late 60s and the 70s and HB was truly magnificent then, not like the synthetic formulations that strive to replicate these classic scents today. He had bought his HB in the forties and fifties, it was expensive he said, not to be replaced now that they were both retired. Grandmother went for Grossmiths when the HB came out, venerable perfume even then, from the twenties and thirties. Between the two of them it created a divine perfumic fog. Modern tastes might say blowsy, even verging on vulgar. I loved it, then and now. Decadent, striking, obviously expensive.
The bathroom was beyond heavenly. Soap, bath oil. Amazing to a young boy. Just opening the door was a wonder as the perfume escaped. Shaving fascinated me. Grandfather took about 40 minutes every morning “beautifying” as grandmother called the ritual. He looked so smart when he emerged, everything fresh and crisply ironed, the cravat standing out like a beacon. He smelt awesome, super fresh . I would sneak up to the bathroom and sniff all of his perfumes. Never, he once told me, call it scent, or fragrance, or cologne. It is perfume. A gentleman, he explained, should always be appropriately perfumed. On one occasion I was surprised to see him splash perfume on his cravat, and not on his skin. It was why he wore it I then realised, as well as being stylish. This was Blenheim Bouquet. A very different smell and effect to HB. Sharp, fresh, crisp, lemon. Very classy, but it soon floated away, ethereal, not anchored like other perfume. Grandfather explained, citrus oil fades quickly on the skin, half an hour, it was gone. So he had this trick, some on the wrists, on the neck, and then load the cravat. It worked too, the citrus grove hung around much stronger and longer. The perfume dried down on the skin, gentle pepper and mild dry bark harmonising with the fruit on the cravat. It was the perfume for church. More discrete. I soon learnt what grandfather wore, why and when he wore it, what it cost. It all seemed very complicated but was utterly intriguing to me. Sometimes after shaving he would smell of pine and amber. Or vivid greens, all herbaceous with some floral hay. Then again mint and soap, but mostly that cool, sharp, Englishness. The perfume style that I love above all. It is still out there, hidden behind the mass of celebrity clones and sugary synthetic easy appeal. Look and you shall find.
There was perfume by Taylor, as well as shaving soap and aftershave, creams and balms. Limes. Super austere, crisp limes. Next quality up was a brand called Trumper, for classic English effect, similar to Blenheim Bouquet. There was a perfume called Eucris. Black bottle. Smelled strange to me. Damp, earthy. Moody. Strong. Any sweetness was half-buried. Good for when you have a cigar, explained Grandfather. They lift each other, he said. The tobacco sweetens the perfume, the perfume anchors the cigar. I have never smoked. Tried it, hated it. Made my head spin and I walked like I was drunk. Despite the protestations of peers I did not persevere. Grandfather did not drink, that is my vice instead.
Grandfather, for about seven years, worked at Harrods, as part of the team that dressed the windows, up until 1939 when all was swept away by the war, including those remnants of the Edwardian era that my grandparents adored. It was some job then. Planning for Christmas took nine months. There were live tigers and lions once, no expense was spared. Grandfather was very artistic. Crafted sets like a theatre, each window or floor area a theme with music and performance. It worked a charm, the rich paying handsomely. He remained creative thereafter, painted, played violin and piano. Wrote poetry. Was a nurse in a huge asylum where he was also first violin in the asylum orchestra. Imagine that. He certainly knew about the hardships of life. He lost his eldest brother in the first war. He taught through the second war. His daughter married a Polish Spitfire pilot. But it was Harrods that opened up the possibility to explore all the best perfume and he took every opportunity. Sometimes he chose to be paid with the best available perfume. He played organ into his nineties at church, only retiring reluctantly when he played funeral music at a wedding…
Which was why when I nosed through the perfume, all the fabulous stuff was from the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. Grandfather had moved on but he stayed in touch with his perfume contact at Harrods and received many bargains. I do not recall all the names, there were about forty perfumes, with grandmother having about half that number again. Very expensive, some. Grandfather said Italian for the smell of refreshing pine, German for a different, less assertive citrus on a more grounded, drier base. France for romance and passion, and England for understated class. France was a full orchestra, England a quartet. Occasion and mood determined which you wore. He loved the classic English perfumes above all.
Perfumery seems to have gone mad. Why have thirteen superb products when you can have forty with only six that are top notch? Every niche must be exploited. New niches must be invented. The ingredients for the old classics have been set aside for good reason. Rare, scarce, expensive. Synthetics is the new necessity, animals and plants are saved. I am of course a classicist, I wear the oldies that my grandfather loved if the new interpretation is good enough. Brilliant perfume is still made, amongst the hundreds of releases that come out each year one or two legends will be born. There will always be great artisans. British perfume is booming. As creative as any just now. Grossmith faded away, the perfume that my grandmother adored above all, and which, ladies perfume or not, my grandfather not only procured but regularly wore. If you like it, wear it, he would say. And he did.
Last year I sampled the revived Grossmith perfumes, based upon the old formulations as much as possible. Appropriately expensive. A tear came to my eye. Wonderful. I was back in my grandparents’ house. Only smell can transport you like that. They will not be for everyone but my grandfather would have undoubtedly bought them, he would have been familiar with something very like them. In the future they too will be legendary classics in a cupboard somewhere. Great perfumes become dated, they fall out of fashion, then someone remembers how magnificent they were. Perfume is emotional, a direct line to the brain. Your perfume choice cannot be wrong. You would not wear it if it displeased you or someone dear to you.
Digital perfume is coming, say the scientists, honed by artificial intelligence. Your brainwaves will be scanned as you sniff, there will be certainty about your preferences. Technology will be able to synthesise exactly what you need. Personalisation of such a nuanced and individual hedonism will be beyond even the best perfumers of today. That is the future, and probably it will be rather brilliant. But until then tradition continues. And I venture this, the classics, the legends, favourites of every type will continue to stimulate, caress, please and indulge. They will be reinvented over and over. As sure as the sun rises, every culture and every person will engage with perfume in some way. As we always have. Only one thing is needed. The return of the cravat.
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